Do singing stars sometimes sink audiences?

Chandita Mukherjee

singer What do the following Indian TV shows have in common? Boogie woogie on Sony, Star Voice of India on Star TV, Sa-re-ga-ma-pa on Zee TV, Chhote Ustad on Sony and Ek Se Badhkar Ek Chhota Packet, Bada Dhamaka also on Zee TV.

If you are not living in a state of vanaprastha, you’d have guessed that these are among the plethora of what are popularly called children’s reality shows. Disguised as talent hunts or song and dance competions they have had children and adults hooked all over the country for the past several years.

When Boogie Woogie started at the beginning of the decade, it looked like a fad set to catch on and fade when the novelty wore off, like so many other passing fads. Who would have guessed then that a genre was being born and the satellite channels would not be able to have enough of such programmes? And that there would be no dearth of kids groomed and rehearsed to full copycat standards, ready to appear on the shows?

The channels need these kids and the ambitious parents of these children need the channels. The more shows there are, the more children turn up, and the more there are of parent-managers, grooming more kids, vying with each other for TV appearances, a loop that feeds itself endlessly. As much as they may be about the child’s performance, the shows are a vehicle for the parents. While showing off their untiring efforts, they hope to claim at least a moment of fame, if not a launching pad for future glory, fat bank balances and related lifestyle for the entire family, entirely based on little Munnu’s efforts.

While at a superficial level, the shows may appear to foster healthy competition between innocent kids, bringing out hidden talents, the kids’ reality programs have come under criticism lately. Speaking at a Kolkata workshop on making amendments to the Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act, 1986 in July this year, Union Minister for Women and Child Development Renuka Chowdhury outrightly stated that reality shows were violating rights of children, and parents ought to be prevented from sending their children for them. She said, “The other day, I saw a tiny girl suggestively gyrating to a song whose meaning she obviously did not know. What do we say to parents sending their children to such shows?”

The immediate cause for provocation was the case of teenaged Shinjini Sengupta who became partially paralyzed, allegedly after a celebrity contest judge spoke harshly to her during a show of this genre. So keyed up was the girl to win, that the shock of the humiliation she suffered is said to have brought on the paralytic attack. The channel in turn blamed the parents, saying that they had concealed the fact that the girl had a health problem. Renuka Chowdhury’s contention was that all parents should be warned not to expose children to such ‘realities’.

As an outcome of the Shinjini case, Zee TV has set up some self-imposed guidelines for their forthcoming reality shows that involve children. In a press release, Tarun Mehra, the business head of Zee TV said, “We felt it is imperative to respond to social and media concerns about children appearing on television… and (that) such an appearance doesn’t significantly compromise their growth in other areas.”

While not questioning the format, Zee has made the guidelines mandatory for all reality shows featuring children, starting with Ek Se Badhkar Ek Chhota Packet, Bada Dhamaka which went on air on September 20. Zee promises not to take kids under the age of six years. Looking into health, they will have a counselor and a doctor on the set during shooting and there will be an ambulance on call. Only fruit juices and other healthy drinks will be served and this applies to the judges and guests also. Children will be restricted to a no smoking zone within the studio. Firecrackers or any other explosive material is banned on the sets.

While any gesture of self-regulation is a positive move and preferable to censorship, does this change the essentially exploitative nature of the child reality show format? The pressure that reality shows put on children is hard. They have to put up performances which demand an emotional maturity much beyond their age. What are the parents trying to inculcate in their wards? And what do the parents who push their children to these reality shows think about what they are doing to themselves?

Several studies have shown that children below the age of eight do not distinguish clearly between fact and fiction. They also cannot separate editorial content from reportage. They tend to be receptive to the suggestiveness of advertising and this is why many TV commercials are targeted specifically at children.

In fact, this manipulation of children is part of middle class culture today. We all know about the pestering child guiding the parents around the mall in making purchases. The mother who tells the tale exclaims half-admiringly “I don’t know how they know so much about what is in the shops!” “I was such a bhola at their age!”

Innocence or bhola-giri goes out of the window in the pursuit of success. What can a seven year old are expected to make of a song like “Beedi jalaile jigar se piya”? Yet a reality show participant is expected to be as suggestive in her movements and expressions as the actress in the original film. She even makes the edge of her singing voice a bit jagged, as if she is desperate to have sex with a particular man and is urgently demanding that he takes the initiative. If this would not be tolerated in daily life, how is it encouraged on a TV program? Is all parental judgment thrown into the breeze by the scent of success?

The closer the imitation, the more the judges reward the contestant. Some of the judges in these shows subject children to severe pressure, and you see the kids steeling themselves and submissively saying -Ji-Sir-Ji-Ma’am to the taunting comments, hoping the round is soon coming to an end. Beating, scolding and humiliating children for the sake of “the child’s good” are largely considered acceptable in our society. Sometimes parents give permission to teachers to “discipline” their children in this manner, so the juries of these shows are also extended this handle.

What about the child’s own rights? Tradition sees children as parental property and issues concerning children are seen from the standpoint of adults in authority over them. The rights of the child as an individual are clearly left aside in these ambitions of scoring fame and fortune.

As human beings, we internalize what put in long hours practicing. What does conforming to the stereotypes of the characters in films she imitates do to the child’s consciousness? Here we are not concerned about the fate of the participants alone, but also the millions of child viewers. As they watch the proceedings, what are the values that are being communicated? That reproducing faithfully is the key to success? That one gets rewarded for doing things without thinking critically? That one must be ready to do anything one is told to do when there is a chance that you may get lots of fame and money at the end? Adults who watch these shows with the children in their homes should be wary of these subliminal messages.

Reality shows violate the rights of children by making them conform to stereotyped images and denying them their right to communicate. In the competition for best imitation, there is no scope for exploring the child’s talent for originality or in the child’s capacity to interpret existing material. When a contestant is ousted, her efforts are denigrated as not having been good enough to win. Being pushed to win all or lose all, is she losing the joys of participating?

In the years from age five onwards, the child is busy in a grand project of figuring out the relationships between the elements that make up her environment. She can get influenced by emotionally charged expressions which draw on experiences that are outside her capacities to appreciate. In a time of rapid social change and corresponding confusions about values, we have a responsibility that our children are not harmed.

In such a situation, adult caregivers and nurturers have to engage with the child, to help the children to develop a logical framework that will allow them to sift and filter the seductive images and words they constantly receive.

Children have to be helped to become critical and comparative thinkers. This critical outlook is their only protection in a world where every person’s identity is being increasingly determined by the external signs of their consumer status.

What jeans you wear, whether your shoes are branded ones or imitations picked up from a footpath stall, whether your cell phone is a branded one or cheap Chinese copies and so on, have become important status concerns. Even the poorest of children in urban areas recognize a ‘fake’ from a branded item.

All the role models around children are the glamorous actors and sportspersons pumped up by the media not just as personalities with their own achievements but as brand ambassadors who endorse products. Not a single one of these characters ever questions mainstream trends. However every child knows that they are acting as if they admire and use the products they promote because they are paid to do so. It looks like no one has to think about anything as long as they make money.

The widespread absorption of the myth of the effortlessly easy life of celebrities and the need to compromise all to achieve it is largely explained by the rapid spread of satellite TV. Once acquired, the channels are watched constantly and TV takes over life in all its aspects. Conversations, aspirations, social encounters are all under its shadow.

Long ago in the early 1990s when satellite TV landed on us through cables criss-crossing the urban skies, many conservative elements worried about how it would mess up our values and tear apart the fabric of our society. Quite to the contrary, satellite TV cemented conservative values. It created genres like the saas-bahu serial, the sensational crime magazine programs, the news told like a soap opera, the reality shows both child and adult. All of these support the status quo and keep viewers opiate and uncritical and subject to manipulation of their emotions.

It may seem at times that all of us have no choice but to take part or get left out. But in fact we do have a choice. We can reflect and decide what we like, what we would like the children in our ambit to have. We can switch off the TV or at least stop using it as a child minder. We can create cultural activities in our homes and schools that bring out the innate creativity of children.

Children have a natural sense of fair play and do not need to have cut-throat competition and ostentatious trophies to enjoy a game. They need to be guided to enjoy the pleasures of investigating and knowing facts from their experience. They need to be freed from the obligation of pleasing others by reproducing existing models. Only then will we have a generation of innovators who can think for themselves.

Encourage critical TV viewing

How much of TV viewing is too much? This question can’t be answered in terms of the number of hours, but we can encourage parents to engage their child in a dialogue about the nature of TV viewing and whether it is becoming counterproductive.

Parents can explore such issues by posing some leading questions to the child in the spirit of a partnership:

  • Do you think people in our family are not communicating as much as they should? Is this because entire evenings are spent watching TV?
  • Have your friendships become less intense as you have grown up? Do you find that time spent watching TV has become more important than that spent with friends?
  • Do you find yourself treating studies a bit carelessly because watching TV takes first place?

If the answers to these questions indicate that TV is coming to dominate the family’s social life, the solutions too can be put forward in a similar spirit. We need not have a censor’s approach here, but focus on working out a viable agreement that all agree to stick to. For example, we can avoid turning on the TV because everyone is home. The schedules can be checked in advance and we could select the shows we want to watch, keeping not more than a couple of programs in an evening. We can use the time to chat or to pursue individual hobbies. We can schedule an evening outing together or go visit friends and relatives.

Another issue is stereotypes that put a category of people in a poor light. How can we initiate recognition of stereotypes by children and creation of awareness that stereotypes are essentially unfair? Some questions that could start the process are:

  • Are children or women portrayed in a TV program as being physically and mentally helpless?
  • Are poor people shown as being overly dependent on their employers? Is their “loyalty” rewarded with good fortune? Are intelligent or enterprising poor people shown as being dishonest?
  • Listen to the language the characters playing different roles use. What does it tell us about the power relations between them?

Are these acceptable in a modern democratic society? The only response to stereotyping is to avoid making generalizations about people of any gender, caste, linguistic or religious group. In fact, when discussing social issues, we can even show characters from TV serials and reality shows as examples of negative stereotyping.

There is also this whole issue of reality shows discussed in the article. How do we keep ourselves and the children from being carried away by all the hype and the rewards that are apparently reaped by child artistes who make it on the small screen? Ask the children to think about:

  • What is life like under the arc lights? What does it really feel like to have to sit around for hours wearing heavy make up and uncomfortable clothes? Does being in the spotlight make you a different person? How does it feel to be photographed or recorded, even when you are doing something you are really good at?
  • What do children have to give up to be successful competitors on such reality shows? What happens to school and sports and just spending time playing with friends and neighbors?
  • Once the popularity has waned, what is life like for the winners?

Lastly, there is the issue of consumerism.

  • What does the commercial say to convince you that it is good for you? For example, an ad may show a dentist endorsing toothpaste but is he really a dentist or an actor playing a dentist?
  • Do you think that you will become as cool as Shahrukh if you drink a certain cool drink? Of course not, so what is the advertiser promoting? Try to define the image that the ad is trying to make the viewer imbibe and aspire to.

To understand how the media works on us and persuades us about certain ideas which may or may not reflect the reality of our lives, we have to view the media critically. It is a habit that has to be built in consciously, but once you start seeing things with a critical eye, it becomes a very interesting way to see and discuss the media.

The author is a film maker interested in the ways science, technology and society intersect and shape our world. She works at Comet Media Foundation in Mumbai can be reached at [email protected].

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